You know the diet drill: Tell yourself you’re no longer allowed to eat to your heart’s content, and you immediately start pondering exactly how many donut holes you can fit into your mouth at one time. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Learning to eat less can be a painless process with these totally doable portion-shrinking strategies:
Portion-Control Plan #1: Abide by the “half now, half later” rule.
This is a very effective strategy. If you ordered a sandwich or pasta bowl for lunch and you see that the portion may be too large, then enjoy half of it, and save the other half for later. And don’t worry: Your eyes are likely bigger than your stomach, so you'll still be full and won’t feel deprived. In fact, recent research published in Food Quality and Preference found that portion size didn’t have a direct impact on a diner’s level of satisfaction. And remember — you can always have the second half later in the day or for dinner.
Portion-Control Plan #2: Balance your plate.
Balanced meals are key to blood sugar stabilization, which is a key factor in controlling your sugar cravings as well as your hunger. The bottom line: Eating a meal composed of protein, carbohydrate, and fat will keep you fuller, longer. The protein stabilizes your blood sugar, the carbohydrates contain slow-to-digest fiber and are rich in metabolism-boosting B Vitamins, and the fat satiates our brain and bellies.
Portion-Control Plan #3: Go to bed!
When we’re low on sleep and energy, we often turn to fast calories – foods that are easy to eat and provide immediate gratification. Unfortunately, those foods are often high in calories, refined carbs, sugar, and fat, while lacking in fiber, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals. Sleep deprivation also increases levels of ghrelin, the so-called “hunger hormone,” and decreases levels of leptin, the “fullness hormone” that signals satiety. The takeaway: Sleep keeps you slim. In fact, one large study that followed 68,183 women for 16 years found that those who slept five hours or fewer per night were significantly more likely to gain weight over that time period than women who slept six or more hours – and these results remained significant even after controlling for physical activity and diet.
Two research-backed ways to get more shut-eye (you should aim for seven to eight hours per night): Create a relaxing bedtime ritual like reading or stretching to signal your body that it’s time for sleep, and stay away from technology an hour before bed.
Portion-Control Plan #4: Chill out.
When we’re stressed, our bodies release hormones that would have, in caveman times, helped us survive: adrenaline for an immediate burst of energy, and cortisol, the ultimate stress hormone. From an evolutionary standpoint, cortisol increases our appetite so that we can replenish our energy stores for the next time we need to “fight or flee.” Rodents, who are also evolutionarily wired to “fight or flee,” act in the same way: When lab mice were purposefully ticked off by researchers, they ate as many high-fat food pellets as they could when they were offered; repeated bouts of stress increased their intake even more. Problem is, modern stressors in our everyday lives (bad traffic, annoying neighbors, demanding bosses, etc.) often don’t require energy expenditure, so this drive to eat more food is unnecessary and ultimately leads to weight gain, among other health woes.
One surefire way to counteract stress? Exercise! In addition to burning calories, it releases other hormones that offset the negative effects of stressful situations. Also, make sure to get enough sleep and to devote a specified period of time each day to relaxation, which can also calm you down.
Portion-Control Plan #5: Downsize your dinnerware.
Eat on a smaller plate, and you may just end up dropping a few pounds. Yes, you’re automatically reducing portion size, but more importantly, according to food psychologist Brian Wansink, you’re tricking your brain into being satisfied. Seeing a small portion on a large plate makes you think you’re missing out, but seeing the same portion pushing the borders of a smaller plate tricks you into thinking you’re eating more. In one of Wansink’s studies, published in the journal Appetite, diners who ate off nine-inch plates ate 48 percent fewer calories than those who ate off of 12-inch plates. Use a similar trick with alcoholic drinks: Tall, slim glasses appear to hold more liquid than fat, short ones.
Portion-Control Plan #6: Put your silverware to good use.
Cut up your food and you might eat less of it: Smaller pieces of food may trick your brain into perceiving that there’s more of it. When college students were offered either a whole bagel or a bagel cut into quarters, those who were offered the quartered bagel ate less of the bagel – and ate fewer calories at a later meal. According to researchers, people use numbers to judge how much of a food is present – so four quarters of a bagel appears to be more than one whole bagel.
Rania Batayneh, MPH, is a nutritionist and author of The One One One Diet.